Return From Exile 

Amereno's Little Italy is back and finding its way in central Tucson

Once it opened way out on 22nd Street in 1998, Amereno's Little Italy developed a following as loyal as Giuseppe Garibaldi's--and now the restaurant is facing trials not unlike those of the Italian revolutionary leader.

Garibaldi's career was a sequence of hard-won victories and strategic retreats, and periods of exile and political disappointment. Today, Garibaldi's name is synonymous with nationalism and unity, and his successes (he was eventually elected to the parliament of a unified Italy) overshadow his tribulations.

So it goes with Amereno's. The restaurant temporarily closed a couple of years ago, and founder Victor Amereno moved away. But last autumn, fighting unfavorable economic odds, the restaurant opened in a new, more central location under the management of Jaqueline Piikkila, retaining executive chef Peter Wilkins and an emphasis on traditional Italian fare.

Amereno's is making a noble culinary effort--yet the results are uneven. Let me make it clear that nothing my friends and I sampled there is really poor, and several items are quite good. What the menu lacks from dish to dish is a consistent high standard.

Amereno's lodges in a drab strip mall near Grant and Country Club roads. The windows are darkly tinted (the sun would otherwise be unbearable), and there's no furniture on the patio yet, so from the parking lot, it looks like another closed restaurant. Inside, though, lies a spacious dining room and side areas decorated in earth tones and some brick facing, with stained-concrete floors. There's a long wine bar across the back, and wine bottles have been incorporated into some of the vine-like decorative wall accents. Simple but attractive wood chairs surround tables whose white tablecloths are protected by the usual clear acrylic or plastic panels. With all these hard, flat surfaces, I imagine the place can become quite noisy when it's full, but my group found it to be perfectly comfortable acoustically when we were one of the few parties there for a meal late in the lunch cycle. (Lunch is served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.)

There's a page of lunch specials, but the full dinner menu is also available (at full price) during lunchtime. Still, you can't count on getting everything. Last week, the pizza oven wasn't operating, but I didn't even see pizza on the menu, so this never would have crossed my mind if the server hadn't been forthright. Also, ravioli was not available--and that is listed as a specialty.

There was plenty more to choose from, though: pasta standards, veal, seafood (mostly shrimp, calamari, clams and mussels), chicken and sausage. Perhaps what arrives before your order is best of all: a basket of warm, Italian sourdough bread accompanied by generous amounts of herbed butter. This can be addictive.

The antipasto and primi offerings include two preparations of calamari: sautéed in marinara, and floured and fried. We took the second option ($10); the breading was light, allowing the calamari's own texture to come through. It was tender, not overcooked, and accompanied by a little bowl of mildly spicy marinara.

Good but less impressive was the wedding soup ($5 for a cup). The little beef meatballs, chicken chunks, pasta and spinach in a light chicken broth constituted a warm, mild starter, but its flavor was not memorable. Similarly, my friend Sue approved of the crisp lettuce in her Caesar salad (which isn't really Italian; it was invented either in San Diego or Tijuana by a Mexican chef), but she complained that the dressing was not robust.

Another appetizer, the pinzimonio ($8.95), was big enough for four to share. Atop a bed of lettuce lay roasted bell peppers, pitted Greek olives and dices of nicely sharp provolone cheese, all served cold with four thin slices of lightly toasted Italian bread. The table's only complaint: The peppers were too heavy with olive oil, but such is the manner of Italian marinades.

Among the entrées, the most successful was the salsicia sisca ($18), little chunks of sausage sautéed with spinach and mushrooms in light olive oil and garlic, and mixed with either seasoned potatoes or--Harry's choice--penne pasta. It was a fairly large portion; the sausage was a little spicy but not enough to frighten the timid, and the pasta was properly al dente.

Alas, the angel hair served on the side of my vitello Alexandria ($22) was slightly overcooked, which often befalls this quick-cooking pasta. The very thinly sliced veal was pan-seared (not breaded) and topped with spinach, prosciutto and provolone, and all bathed in a roasted-garlic white-wine and sage sauce. Within a few bites, the cheese was dominating, and the sauce, initially savory and delicious, seemed to grow increasingly salty. I'd like to try this again with a little more veal or a little less cheese; it certainly has potential.

The lunch portion of the eggplant parmigiana ($10) looked exactly like a plate of wienerschnitzel (the thin veal or pork cutlet popular in Austria). The eggplant had been sliced lengthwise, about as thin as the veal, then breaded and fried and served with red sauce, mozzarella and spaghetti. The friend who ordered it dismissed it as greasy; less breading and more eggplant would have probably improved it.

Also low on the approval scale was the baked ziti ($10 for lunch), richly bathed in cheeses and marinara and topped with mozzarella. Sue said it was "all right," but thought it swam in more liquid than you'd expect.

This is not a place where it's easy to leave room for dessert, but we dutifully tried two: chocolate cannoli ($6) and crème brülée ($7). Actually, we had two orders of cannoli, and each plate was presented with a slightly different array of strawberry slices or berries and dribbles of chocolate sauce. The crisp pastry tube had a strong cinnamon flavor; the ricotta filling was not oversweet, but neither did it have an especially chocolate flavor. The vanilla flavor of the crème brülée was more prominent but not too sweet; the custard had jelled well and lurked under a nicely thin, caramelized crust.

So Amereno's Little Italy, like Garibaldi, has been suffering some little setbacks following its period of exile. But the place has only been open again for about three months, and I suspect that eventually, like Garibaldi, it will prevail.

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